Walking the Road to American Mass Imprisonment

Creative commons, bruce berrien

Let me describe a photo from my childhood. I am 12 years-old, a student at South Wellington Intermediate in Newtown. I look out from under a Chicago Bulls cap pulled low to the eyes, and wear a matching Chicago Bulls t-shirt, sleeves falling loosely below the elbows. One hand is in the pocket of big jeans that sag a little at the back. I had never been to America. Don’t think I had ever met an American face-to-face. Yet I draped American symbols across my young body. We all wore NBA Starter Caps and jeans that sagged a little. Around the time the photo was taken, a survey of New Zealand school students found the most popular celebrity was not a local but the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan.

At 24, I travelled to the United States to study on exchange at the University of California Berkeley. There was no culture shock. The clothes and the music, the accent and the slang words were already familiar. I understood obscure references to old TV shows because I watched the same ones growing-up. I took a sociology course on racial inequality and read about mass imprisonment for the first time – and was struck by the parallels to New Zealand. I found African-Americans were 13 percent of the general population but 40 percent of all prisoners, similar proportions to Māori. I learned there was a likeness in the timing of prison growth, with prison numbers in both countries relatively stable in the decades after World War II, before exploding in the wake of neoliberal restructuring, largely in the communities worst impacted by welfare cutbacks and declining working-class employment.

I have been studying prisons in New Zealand and America ever since. I recently published an article in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology examining three case studies of policy borrowing from American criminal justice. The first is the introduction of three strikes laws that began with a self-funded trip to the United States by Garth McVicar and David Garett. The pair travelled to California to learn about three strikes and to Arizona to see the chain gangs and tent prisons run by the racist sheriff Joe Arpaio. Garrett entered parliament with the ACT Party, who leveraged a strong post-election negotiating position into a guarantee from National to support three strikes. The end result was New Zealand law named with a baseball slogan.

The second case examines the history of our maximum security prison at Paremoremo. The architecture was modelled on America’s first supermax – USP Marion in Illinois – built on a telegraph poll design where cell blocks extend like cross arms from a central corridor. Specific parts and technology were physically imported from the United States to complete the build. Then administrators borrowed from Marion to inform their control strategies: at one stage the warden had a copy of the Marion rulebook shelved in his office, and later, prion managers downloaded information about the supermax directly from the internet, using the language of “behaviour modification” to implement severe disciplinary practices and long-term solitary confinement.

The third case looks at the influence of zero tolerance and broken windows policing from the New York Police Department. The heavily militarized NYPD has a long track record of racially targeted crackdowns on low-level public order offences. Yet New Zealand has been sending high-level delegations to visit there for a long time. In 1999 alone, there were trips to the NYPD from the Police and Justice Ministers, the opposition Justice Spokesperson, and the mayors of Wellington and Auckland. The Police Association also brought the Deputy Commissioner of the NYPD to speak at their annual conference. The hardline tactics of zero tolerance and broken windows were diametrically opposed to the community policing model favoured by the New Zealand police throughout this period. But even here, American crime control symbols became crucial reference points with broad appeal.

What has emerged in these cases are hybrids shaped at times by borrowing from the United States, and at others, resistance and even rejection. Three strikes laws faced staunch opposition from within the state bureaucracy, the supermax behaviour modification regime was challenged in the High Court and shutdown, zero tolerance and broken windows remained at odds with national policing strategy. Nonetheless, across the three major branches of criminal justice – courts, police and prisons – we find important lines of American influence at the punitive edge of New Zealand developments. The symbols of mass imprisonment travelled fast and were easily adapted to new conditions, with their catchy labels and appeals to common sense, pushing criminal justice rightward and helping fuel New Zealand’s punitive turn.

Yet the shared cultural terrain linking America and New Zealand also opens possibilities for resistance to prison expansion. Local researchers and activists often borrow from American scholarship to organize their analysis of New Zealand criminal justice around concepts like “mass imprisonment” and “the prison industrial complex.” In their handbook on prison abolition, People Against Prisons Aotearoa acknowledge the contribution of Boston-based organization Black and Pink with the words: “our comrades across the Pacific, we follow in the path you set down.” Kim Workman routinely talks publicly about the decarceration efforts of states like Texas and New Jersey. Just as globalization opens avenues for those advancing get tough criminal justice, it creates opportunities for resistance, and to learn from the failures of American mass imprisonment.

This post is based on the article The Globalization of American Criminal Justice: the New Zealand Case. Liam Martin is a Lecturer in Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington. 

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